After spending almost two decades in a Thai prison, a Joburg drug mule admitted he lied to his family about what he was doing when he was caught trying to smuggle heroin out of that country.
Alexander “Shani” Krebs returned to Joburg on Saturday, after serving 18 years in Bangkok’s Bang Kwang Prison for trying to smuggle 1.2kg of heroin back to SA.
He was arrested at Bangkok’s international airport on April 26, 1994 – a day before SA’s first democratic elections.
At the time, Krebs claimed that a man he met while holidaying in Thailand had given him a bag to bring back to SA, saying that it contained foreign currency.
But speaking from his sister’s Orange Grove home this week, Krebs said he had lied to his family about what he believed was in the bag. “I was too ashamed,” he said.
Now that he is home, Krebs is working on a book, Dragons and Butterflies, which he says will reveal everything about his actions, arrest and his time in prison.
“It’s been so overwhelming being back,” he said. “My sister took me grocery shopping on Sunday and I was shocked at how expensive everything was. But it’s nice to see how South Africa’s become so integrated.
“I went out with friends on Saturday night and I was amazed to see so many people of different races getting along. We’re now a progressive society and I’m ready to embrace that.”
Krebs was initially sentenced to death by the Thai court, but this was reduced to 100 years after he pleaded guilty to drug trafficking.
“My sister was with me when I was sentenced, and I tried to put on a brave face for her sake, but it was like a dream,” he said. “You can’t process the idea of life in prison.”
Taken straight to Bang Kwang Prison, Krebs had to get used to a new country, a new language, and being thrown into a small cell.
At first, his only means of communication with his family was through written letters, but these took a long time as they all had to be censored.
After a few years, he was allowed to make two phone calls a week.
“At one stage we had TV, but no news channels – just movies and some sports,” he said.
“I had no access to current events, so it was quite a shock coming home. I had no idea what to expect and how South Africa had changed. But when I landed on Saturday, I felt like I was home.”
Speaking of his experience in prison, Krebs described the food as inedible, although foreign prisoners received slightly better fare.
“We got a plastic bag filled with rice, and another filled with stew, some vegetables, and just bones,” he said.
“Most prisoners received money from their families, and were allowed to buy food from outside, so only about a third of them were eating prison food.”
Krebs said the prisoners formed “eating groups”, and would share food with each other.
Krebs also had to adapt to simple activities, like showering. “The shower water was pumped directly from a river, so sometimes there were small fish in the water,” he said. “We also had to buy bottled water from outside.”
When Krebs and the other prisoners were not in their cells, they were allowed outside to play sport. “I ended up coaching a prison soccer team.”
But during the 15-hour lock-up, there would sometimes be up to 26 prisoners in a cell.
On the violence in prison, he said: “I did witness a few killings, but Thai prisons have a unique punishment for violence. They put you in solitary confinement and then move you to another building. But the Thais didn’t interfere with the foreigners.”
As time dragged on, Krebs missed the simple things – the things he took for granted before, from switching on a light and having clean water, to having physical contact with someone he loved – even just holding hands.
Krebs said meeting other foreigners was what kept him going.
“At one point I had to go to the hospital, and they were marching some of the female prisoners past. I saw this woman and thought I recognised her. I called out to her, but she must have thought I was a sex maniac or something because she just ignored me.
“When she walked back I told her I was South African, and she said she was too. That’s the only contact we ever had.”
Krebs said he had always advocated that foreigners stick together. “There were a lot of Nigerian prisoners there, and they stayed together, so I took an example from them.”
But sometimes Krebs felt ashamed to be South African, because he knew his country would never help him.
“Other countries have a treaty with Thailand so that their prisoners can go home to serve their sentences.
“South Africa has no such treaty. I wished I was American because American prisoners always got out so quickly.
“An American was arrested at the same time I was, and he had double the amount of heroin with him. But he spent just over four years in prison and then went home, while I was sentenced to death.”
A few family visits also kept Krebs going, but he found these too emotional. “I told them not to come any more,” he said. “It was expensive for them to travel and I preferred they sent me money for food.”
Looking back, Krebs said prison had changed him completely. “Prison reveals your strengths and weaknesses. I evolved so much. I became an artist, realising what my purpose was. I learnt to put the needs of others before mine.”
Krebs’s fear that he would die in prison dissolved when he was granted amnesty.
“There were several amnesties granted to foreign prisoners on King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s “special days”, such as birthdays and anniversaries,” he said.
“Last year my sentence was already down to 21 years, seven months. In December, it was reduced again to 17 years, 11 months, and 26 days, meaning my sentence ended on April 22.”
Krebs made many friends in prison, and is now having difficulty being alone in a room. “A lot of the friends I made are still there serving their sentences, so when I left, I felt like I left a part of my soul there.”